Sunday, April 29, 2012

iona bound

Very first thing on Tuesday, I set off on my 8 weeks of voluntary work with the Iona Community. It seems an awfully long time ago that I submitted my application (some 9/10 months ago?), so it feels somewhat strange (and a little scary) that the time has finally arrived. As you might imagine, I now have rather mixed feelings about my impending “expedition”. I’m certainly not looking forward to spending so much time away from my family (and friends) and I’m just keeping my fingers crossed that I don’t make an absolute mess during my time helping to run the community shop (settling up cash/dealing with card payments/being out of my depth!)…
I think this will be my fifth time on the island. I know from first-hand experience that I can expect EVERY type of weather during my time there – so, hopefully, my packing will reflect this! Actually, packing for an eight-week trip is pretty strange in itself… how many T-shirts, pairs of trousers etc WILL I need? I am taking my (heavy and rather bulky) laptop and it’s times like this that one realises that owning an iPad might have been a good plan! Hey ho!
One of the things that I AM looking forward to (albeit with a little trepidation) is meeting and working with lots of “new” people. Certainly, I remember from my last week-long visit in 2007, that the new friends I met then were the highlight of my stay (in addition to simply being on that magical island, of course!).
Hopefully, I’ll be able to continue blogging… from time to time(!).

Saturday, April 28, 2012

march/april books

The Poetry of Wilfred Owen (Wordsworth Poetry Library): Although I vaguely came across some of Owen’s poetry whilst researching my grandfather’s WW1 exploits, this book gave me the opportunity to read all his best-known poems (only four of which were published in his lifetime – he was killed a week before the Armistice in November 1918). Wonderful, powerful poetry that reflects the horror and waste of the First World War.
Lent for Everyone: Mark (Tom Wright): I’ve been using this as my Lenten study book (we used Wright’s book on Matthew’s gospel last year). Although I’m not a huge lover of Wright’s style, the book proved to be a good daily discipline and provided some useful and helpful insights/ reflections. 
The Tiger’s Wife (Tea Obreht): This is our Book Group’s latest book (winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2011). It tells the story of a young doctor, Natalie, as she attempts to unravel the mysterious death of her beloved grandfather, set against the backdrop the Balkan war of the 1990s. It tracks back to the former Yugoslavia of the 1940s, when the Nazis bomb Belgrade zoo – causing, amongst other animals, a tiger to escape to the hills above the fictional village of Galina (where her grandfather lived as a child). In addition to Natalie’s search for clues about her grandfather’s death, the book weaves together various episodes of folklore, including the tale of the “deathless man” and about the Tiger’s Wife herself (a deaf-mute Muslim girl who falls in love with a tiger).
Although I felt it lost its way at times as the story(ies) developed, I very much enjoyed the book. Obreht is a compelling and eloquent storyteller.
Kissinger: 1973, A Critical Year (Alistair Horne): Absolutely fascinating account of a truly significant year of knife-edge global politics. So many things happened: the end of the Vietnam war; Nixon’s visit to China; the Yon Kippur War in the Middle East; the Energy Crisis… and, of course, Watergate! All this mixed in with his reputation as a womaniser, his globe-trotting role of shuttle (and often secret) diplomacy, Nixon’s jealousy of Kissinger’s growing reputation and much more … quite a book!
The Bellini Code (Jason Goodwin): Moira had enjoyed this book – a detective story set in Venice in the 1840s – so I thought I’d give it a go. I loved some of the historical detail and the descriptions of Venice, but found it somewhat difficult to follow the intricate storyline at times and also the wealth of characters (felt I needed a reference sheet throughout!). Clever writing – pity it was probably just a little bit too clever for me!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

more murky murdoch manipulation?

Anyone reading my blogs over recent months will know that I’m not a great lover of the Murdoch family and/or News Corp. I found James Murdoch’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry (and his manner) yesterday both annoying and depressing. Murdoch insisted (well almost: “I wouldn’t describe it that way”) that Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, was NOT a “cheerleader for Rupert Murdoch's contribution to British television". Certainly, from News Corp emails, it appears to show Hunt’s support for News Corp's bid for BSkyB (now withdrawn). Hunt apparently claims that he has acted in a “quasi-judicial role at all times” – despite the fact that there were a whole series of emails from News Corp's director of public affairs, Frederic Michel, sent to James Murdoch and other executives revealing, via Hunt’s “special advisor”, his thoughts about the controversial takeover plans (it’ll be very interesting to see how he copes with Leveson and vice versa).
It all sounds very fishy and inappropriate as far as I’m concerned – or am I just being incredibly naive?
You may recall that Business Secretary Vince Cable was stripped of his responsibility for overseeing the BSkyB bid, after he had been secretly recorded saying he had "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch said he discussed the BSkyB bid with Mr Cameron over dinner at the home of former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks on 23 December 2010 – just two days after Cable was removed from the BSkyB bid responsibilities. Mr Murdoch said he spoke briefly to the prime minister about the removal of Mr Cable, saying it was a "tiny conversation" and not a discussion.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office was quick to maintain that Mr Cameron stood by previous comments that he had had no inappropriate conversations with James Murdoch about the BSkyB bid and "had done nothing wrong."
Of course not.
Yes, I appreciate that the Labour government were far from squeaky clean when it comes to cosying up to the Murdochs... and I readily accept that politicians and the media DO need to speak to each other!
My problem is that I’m concerned about the massive amounts of power, influence and (in the case of the BSkyB bid) financial gain that an organisation like News Corp can render (oh, and don’t forget their relationships with various member of the Metropolitan Police). I find it VERY scary. 
One of the key issues for the Leveson Inquiry is to focus on the relationship between the press and prominent politicians as part of its examination of the ethics, culture and practices of the UK's newspapers and media. Whatever James Murdoch and the Prime Minister may say, it all feels like totally inappropriate behavior as far as I’m concerned.
Of course, BSkyB bid has been now withdrawn and James Murdoch resigned from News International in February – largely as a result of public concern and the whistle-blowing from other sections of the media(?).  
With Rupert Murdoch due to appear before the inquiry over the next two days, his top lawyers will no doubt have been working overtime advising News Corp/News International, so Rupert M can put forward a massive “justification” for all its actions. He KNOWS that the future of his UK businesses (and their worldwide credibility) will be at stake.
He’s a very clever (and dangerous) man, so he’ll clearly be very well briefed and will come out fighting (expect the phrase “we’ve done nothing wrong” to crop up a number of times)!    

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

fairy slipper island

As some of you will be aware(!), I’m about to spend 8 weeks on the beautiful Isle of Iona (voluntary work with the Iona Community). I’m excited, but it’s going to be very difficult spending so much time away from the family – especially those living in Bristol whom I see on a very regular basis. It’s difficult enough for adults (me included) to get their heads around the prospect of me being away from home for such a period but, as you might imagine, it’s going to be even harder for our grandchildren, especially for 5 year-old Iris and (nearly) 3 year-old Rosa - who I see at least a couple of times every week.
I chatted with Iris yesterday about my impending trip and, thanks to the wonders of Google maps/satellite images, located the diminutive island on my computer screen (having first showed her images of her house/street in Bristol). Iona is just 3 miles long x 1 mile wide. Tiny. Really tiny. It even makes the small neighbouring island of Mull look pretty big!
We panned down so I could show her the sea and the white sandy beaches, together with the Abbey and the place where I’ll be working during my stay.
She seemed absolutely captivated by it all (although I’m sure she found it hard to fully comprehend)… and then announced that I was going to be living on “fairy slipper island” (because that’s how its shape appeared to her on the satellite image)!
I like that.
From now on, in her eyes, it IS fairy slipper island and, hopefully, she’ll be able to use this image while I’m away.
Photo: map of Iona (bottom left hand corner!) and (part) Mull.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

the tempest at the RSC

Moira+I went to Stratford again yesterday – this time to undertake some babysitting and enable Hannah to see the matinee performance of “Twelfth Night” at RSC (we’d been a couple of weeks earlier but, thus far, Hannah hadn’t seen any of the “shipwreck trilogy” plays in which Felix is appearing this season). She wasn’t disappointed!
However, the HUGE bonus for Moira+me was that we were given tickets for last night’s performance of “The Tempest” (front row, central, in the circle no less!)… and, once again, we were completely captivated by another electrifying production in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Like “Twelfth Night”, David Farr and Jon Bausor were again the respective directors and designers.  Jonathan Slinger (Prospero) and Sandy Grierson (Ariel) were both magnificent, but so was the rest of the cast. I REALLY enjoyed Felix’s comic performance as Trinculo (a part he’d played with “Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory”, Bristol in 2010)… after the inevitably complicated scene-setting of the first part of the play, the audience were tangibly put at ease by the wonderful, confident (and very funny) banter between Trinculo and Stephano (played by Bruce MacKinnon).   
Once again, the magic of live theatre at its very best… stunning design, brilliant acting and directing (and the writer was pretty good too!).
Photo: a photograph of the stage taken from our seats in the Circle – I’m afraid it doesn’t at all do justice to the quality of the set design, but hey! Click on it to enlarge.

Friday, April 20, 2012


Moira+I have just returned from a really lovely few days in Spain (together with our great friends Ken+Debby) – thanks to the amazing generosity of my former school colleagues who paid for the trip AND especially to Wendy (from school) who also let us stay in her lovely villa near Orihuela.
The sun shone (19-26 degC), the sky was blue and the Mediterranean was a wonderful mixture of inky blue and turquoise.
Moira+Debby essentially “chilled” while Ken+I played golf for three days (beautiful courses at Las Colinas, Las Ramblas and Villamartin)… and, fittingly, we ended tying - winning one day each and drawing one. We arranged our golf times either as “twilight” or relatively early morning rounds so we could all make the most of our time in the area. Somewhat predictably, we seemed to eat and drink quite a lot – both at the villa and at local restaurants, bars and cafes. The local supermarket sold the same Rioja that I would normally buy at home for up to £9 a bottle for just €2.99… well, it would have been a shame not to have sampled it, wouldn’t it? And with three patios to choose from, there seemed little point in putting up a struggle!
We were also “impressed” by the local Chinese shop that seemed to sell absolutely EVERYTHING (which Debby nick-named “Chimark”!).
Ken+I managed to fit in a coffee+pastry before our morning rounds of golf (as you do) and we all also found some really excellent lunchtime “deals” – with very good food - for €10 and €12 respectively (the latter in Cartagena which included four courses and a glass of wine!)… not to mention a brilliant stone oven restaurant where we cooked our own steaks!
We also enjoyed our coastal trips to Torrevieja and, in particular, to the beautiful city/port of Caragena.
All in all, we had a really wonderful time… and Ken has already asked what I have in mind for my THIRD retirement!
Very many thanks to lots of brilliant school colleagues for making it all possible.  
Photo: me “punching” a shot on a final hole of our “mini tour” – and Ken+I both got our pars, which was a nice way to finish!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

incompetent shopper of southville

I pride myself as being an efficient shopper. Actually, I REALLY don’t like shopping at all (except for books) and so, when needs must, I decide exactly what I need to buy in advance and swoop on the shops accordingly. For example, Christmas shopping might take me twenty minutes (perhaps?)...
However, yesterday was a little embarrassing.
I’m shortly off to the Isle of Iona for a couple of months (voluntary work with the Iona Community) and, it seems (according to the blurb I’ve received from them), that I’ll only be able to get my clothes laundered every fortnight. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to stock up on socks, underwear, spare pull-ons, jeans, T-shirts and the like. I went along to dear old M+S yesterday afternoon, grabbed an armful of items and queued at the cashdesk.
The smiley, on-the-ball cashier immediately (and politely) wondered if some of the socks might be a little on the small side. Oh dear, yes they were… she was absolutely right, how stupid! “Nevermind, I’ll put your items ‘on hold’ and deal with the next customer while you go find some replacements”, she said.
I duly returned, armed with the correct-sized socks and suggested (half-jokingly) that I perhaps ought to check the sizes of the other sets of socks I’d previously dumped on her counter. Oh dear me, I had indeed chosen the wrong size again – this time, they were on the large side. When I reluctantly brought this to cashier’s attention, she responded: “Right (followed by a lengthy dramatic pause and an unconvincing smile), well nevermind sir, these thing do happen (although I bet she was REALLY thinking “but never twice”)… I’ll put them on hold again while you run off and find the proper socks”.I duly returned, apologised again and made some inane comment about me being the nightmare customer at the end of a long working day (it was 5pm). She simply smiled (but didn’t actually refute my suggestion!).
I duly paid, stuffed everything into my shoulder bag (refusing M+S plastic bags as I did so) and departed - still feeling a little embarrassed (although I think I’d proved to be good entertainment for the other people in the queue?).
Unfortunately, when I got home and emptied out my bag, I realised that I’d left four T-shirts on the counter!
I returned to M+S this morning. Fortunately, there was a different person on the till – although I did just get the feeling that she’d already been told about yesterday’s “customer-from-hell”! I collected the aforementioned T-shirts and ran!
PS: I now own so much underwear and socks that I think my present stock will “see me out”!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

by george, he doesn’t get it…

We were having supper with our lovely friends Alan+Gareth earlier this evening and they both expressed surprise that I hadn’t commented (via blog or facebook or whatever) about the latest outpourings from our beloved Chancellor.
I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about (clearly, any such remarks had been made to coincide with our two-day trip to Stratford earlier in the week – at a time when I was out of the “news loop”!).
According to last Tuesday’s
Guardian (who were reporting what Mr Osborne had earlier told The Daily Telegraph!), it seems that Mr Osborne was "shocked" to discover that some of the wealthiest people in the country pay "virtually no" income tax. Amazingly, it seems that George pays absolutely no attention to the wealth(?) of comments and advice written on the subject over recent months (and, equally staggering, he certainly doesn’t read my blog either in which I’ve regularly made reference to tax avoidance over the past three years).
I can’t believe I’m writing this.
Where has the Chancellor been over the past few years?
Apparently, he told The Telegraph: "I was shocked to see that some of the very wealthiest people in the country have organised their tax affairs, and to be fair it's within the tax laws, so that they were regularly paying virtually no income tax. And I don't think that's right”.
You tell ‘em George!!
But, hang on, Mr Osborne is the Chancellor of the Exchequer isn’t he?
Isn’t he supposed to be ensuring that people pay the appropriate level of taxes?
Is it just me or do the Chancellor’s comments smack of a little insincerity?
I know I’ve been enjoying Shakespeare this week, but “the (Chancellor) doth protest too much, methinks” would seem an appropriate phrase.
Actually, perhaps Basil Fawlty would be closer to the mark: “Oh! Oh, I see!...It's my fault, is it?...Oh, of course, there I was thinking it was your fault… when all the time it was my fault! Oh, it's so obvious now, I've seen the light! Ah well, I must be punished then, mustn't I? (slaps his bottom) You're a naughty boy Fawlty, don't do it again!”
If only…

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

twelfth night at the RSC

Ken+Debby+Moira+I went to see Twelfth Night at the RSC last night (Director: David Farr). Felix was playing Fabian.
After a pre-theatre early supper in Carluccio’s, we all enjoyed a wonderful evening of theatre at its very best. The technical design and production were hugely impressive and brilliantly inventive and the actors were all first class. Nicholas Day made an excellent Sir Toby Belch, but Jonathan Slinger’s performance as Malvolio was simply stunning. I’ve seen the play performed professionally at least a couple times before, but this was by far the best I’d seen. Quite hilarious at times and much appreciated by the full house. One of the unexpected bonuses of the production for me was the beautiful music - especially the song that brought the performance to an end (sung/played by Kevin McMonagle and composed by Adem Ilhan).
I know I’ve said this many, many times before, but I just love the magic of live theatre… and this was something VERY special.
Moira+I stayed in Stratford overnight with Hannah+Fee+Ursula and spent a lovely morning chilling+mooching around the town (actually, I ended up taking Ursula on a route march along riverside paths and back streets to give her parents some well-earned respite!) before having a special private back-stage theatre tour from Felix and then an excellent lunch together in the third floor restaurant at the RSC.
VERY good times.
Photo: that special air of anticipation… photograph taken as the audience began to settle in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre before last night’s performance.
PS: Hannah+Felix are renting a small house from the RSC for the period of Fee's "run" (until October) - it's directly opposite the theatre and provides him with a daily commute of less than 30 seconds!!
PPS: double-click on the image to enlarge!

Saturday, April 07, 2012

book group

By chance, I listened to a “Readers’ Lives” programme on Radio4 last night. It was about a book group, formed in “affluent Putney” some 10 years ago. I’d first heard the programme about this time last year – just as we (Catherine, Felicia, Gareth, Lal, Ruth, Liz, Moira, Alan+I) were forming our own book group (entitled “The Slow Readers Group”!).
The Putney group consists of six women but, as the BBC website is quick to emphasise, “this is no casual club open to the public but a close knit circle of friends and bibliophiles whose group is exclusive”. As you will have noted, our group is a little different in that it “allows” (encourages? tolerates?) men and we certainly don’t vet potential members! The Putney group also meets over dinner; we’re happy to make do with wine+nibbles. In addition, most of the Putney group seem to be dog owners(!) and, as they just happened to mention, Jilly Cooper had previously joined them to discuss one of her books they’d been reading (as you do). As yet, we haven’t aspired to celebrity appearances.
Actually, for all my inverted snobbishness, the Putney book group does sound very enjoyable and worthwhile. I’ve certainly been enjoying our own group meetings – it’s good to read stuff that you wouldn’t otherwise have read. On the negative side (and this is purely something that applies to me personally), our discussions always seem to reinforce a) my inability to recall details, b) my inability to remember characters’ names (this also applies to the other little things, like the name of the book or the author!) and c) my lack of intellect(?) when it comes to fully understanding plots and other significant matters!
Photo: our group's current book.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

exultate singers at st james priory

Gareth, Alan, Iona, Moira+I went to a wonderful concert at St James Priory, Bristol last night entitled “Easter Mysteries”, given by Exultate Singers (“Bristol’s accomplished chamber choir”) and accompanied by Richard May on cello. It was just stunningly beautiful. The superb music included Threnos (for solo cello) and Svyati by John Tavener – I do LOVE his music - plus works by Knut Nystedt, Francis Grier and Frank Martin. It was the first time I’d heard Exultate Singers, but certainly not the last; they were mightily impressive.
It was also the first time I’d ever been inside
St James Priory church. It’s an absolutely lovely building - described as “the oldest building in Bristol still in use today” (the Priory was founded in 1129) – and has been beautifully and sensitively restored. I will certainly be returning to see it in daylight before very long. St James Priory provides residential support and treatment for people suffering from substance addiction and/or homelessness.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

you’re not going to believe this, but…

Shock, horror!
Amazingly, at long last, I actually AGREE with something Education Secretary Gove has said (well, ONE sentence at least).
Actually, what I SHOULD say is that Mr Gove has, rather late in the day, come round to my own way of thinking on the subject of A-levels!
Apparently, according the BBC’s website, Mr Gove says he is concerned that A-levels are failing to properly prepare students for university - in future, it appears that normal control of A-level content will be taken away from exam boards and handed to universities "drive the system" (whatever that means – personally, I’m in the
Stefan Collini camp when it comes to the purpose of university education).
I’ve previously written about sixth form education, in terms of university preparation, on a number of occasions (eg.
March 2009 and September 2010 as samplers), but this is an extract from something I wrote on 11 November 2009 when I was working in an “outstanding” (in OFSTED terms) North Somerset comprehensive school – it clearly doesn’t apply to ALL sixth-formers:
“You can get into our sixth form (in theory) if you achieve a minimum of 6 Cs at GCSE. The problem is that our school is so good at getting pupils to achieve very good GCSE results that we end up with accepting pupils into the sixth form who perhaps shouldn’t be there and for whom the step up to A Levels comes as an enormous shock. The system effectively encourages schools to “spoonfeed” pupils so that they pass their exams (obviously, the brighter ones don’t need this and will be successful anyway) – it’s not the pupils who are examined these days, it’s the schools!
And, of course, this is often repeated for A Levels – with pupils being schooled (again, spoonfed in my view) to pass. The trouble is, it seems to me, that for some of these “successful” students, the world of university education or the “real world” of work will come as an almighty shock to the system. It’s there that they’ll be “found out” – when there’s no longer anyone around to spoonfeed them in the way they’ve become accustomed… or maybe I’ve just become very cynical in my old age!”
But, of course, universities need to attract students in order to generate their respective incomes… so, perhaps for some universities, it’s not in their interests to “blow the whistle”… which just leaves the “real world” then?
I think I’d better stop now!